Gulzar’s presence at the Bangalore Literature Festival was like a star appearing on the morning skies. The warmth of his persona was as soothing as his poetry, finds Deepa Ganesh
Years have caught up, but not much has changed with Gulzar. His kurta-pyjama of sparkling starchy whiteness, his sonorous voice resonating with emotional restraint, his grace and his proclaimed love for the ‘common man’ – it’s intact. This remarkable poet-lyricist-filmmaker, who was the star at the Bangalore Literary Festival, was a picture of grace and what was even more striking, apart from his stunning golden mojris, was his undiminished passion for poetry. “Such festivals are important for writers. It tells us if our writing is still working,” said Gulzar, who read his poems to an audience that was all over the place.
Gulzar, who came into the film industry after a few years as a car mechanic, began his film career with Bimal Roy’s film Bandni. From a very modest beginning, Gulzar went on to be one of the finest lyricists of India – a writer who wrote about nature, human relationships, and political issues with rare lyricism and poignancy. “My family didn’t want me to be a writer,” remembers the octogenarian Gulzar. “Back then, every middle class family wanted its children to be well-settled,” and being a writer meant “being a burden on his brothers,” as his father said. “I think their concern was justified. It was all so uncertain,” said Gulzar. But Gulzar’s accidental meeting with Bimal Roy went on to be one of his most intense and enduring relationships and Gulzar records this with vivid detail in an essay.
If Gulzar’s poetry haunts you with its soft-sad, romantic, surreal and philosophical qualities — all in a sweep — as a person Gulzar is no less intense. The sleepless nights that he spent beside the ailing Bimalda’s bed, the roza he kept for Meena Kumari when the actress was ill, and his relationship with R.D. Burman who he says was the “anchor of his life” — his poems cannot help being what they are. In an interview, Gulzar recalling RD, said “I spent so many years with Pancham, we would drum our fingers on the walls, on the dashboards of our cars and on the balustrades on the terrace to get the rhythm and the score for my lyrics right. He was such a restless soul. I miss him.” With a persona that’s so drawn to life, if Gulzar idolises Mirza Ghalib for reasons more than just poetry, it’s no surprise. By his own admission, “Ghalib’s poems, his lifestyle, his behaviour everything are a great inspiration. When people carried religion on their shoulders, Ghalib spoke of humanity. He lost seven children and carried a huge sadness within him. Yet, he was known for his sense of humour.”
Gulzar has haunted generations of Indians across the length and breadth of the country, as a lyricist, and a filmmaker.
Many at the Literary Festival saw him through the great pieces of poetry he wrote for films; but Gulzar wasn’t particularly flattered. “It somehow always comes back to films,” he quipped light-heartedly, as he read his nazms to an audience that seemed to know them all. “Nothing misses his eye,” said Sanjana Roy Choudhury, who moderated Gulzar’s poetry session. “The richness of his poetry lies in the vivid imagery. His poems on the same subject evoke completely different tones, textures, moods and colours,” she added. Gulzar read two nazms on rain – one spoke of how rain battered the poor and homeless, and the other celebrated its beauty in evocative splendour (“Paani ko lag jaata hain paanv”). In “Mein kuch kuch bhoolta jaata hoon” – a poem on memory and separation – Gulzar writes, “It’s a long time since I soaked in the rain of your voice.”
The audience was full of requests, and the most affable Gulzar did take them. In a style and a voice that’s so winning, the poet read “Makaan ki oopri manzil mein ab koi nahin rehta”, “Kuch kuch uski baton se mein ab sehmat hoon” and many others to a huge gathering of poetry lovers who got excited with each word. “Nazm is not just what the image communicates; scratch and there’s more,” he insisted that the craft of poetry has to be learnt like the basics of music. Making a rather important observation about the rise of literary festivals, Gulzar said, “the demand for regional cinema is going down, but local literary festivals are on the rise. You cannot suppress local cultures.”
Many of Gulzar’s poems speak of the pain of Partition (his home in Punjab is now in Pakistan). He read his famous poem, “Subah subah ik khwab ki dastak par darwaza khola, dekha…”, and followed it with “a revised version” of it.
The optimist that Gulzar is, and a great believer in democracy, he expressed his immense admiration for the younger brigade of writers — ‘they are honest and outspoken’.
There was no way Gulzar saab could leave – a huge queue for autographs, photographs, aspiring poets wanted advice, and some just wanted to stand in his vicinity. Gulzar had space for all, a word for everyone and a smile for even the sundry.
Just moments ago, Gulzar had recited “Aaya tha, mila thaa, chalaa gayaa”.